- What is the nature of the reading experience today as compared to the 19th century?
- Can one measure a book’s success by counting the number of film adaptations? (Dan mentions that he likes the film adaptations of the novels of Stephen King better than the novels on which they are based.)
- What is the influence of style and content, (i.e. the split between poetics and storytelling) on the longevity of a novel? (the conclusion of the comments on Dan’s posts seemed to be that Stephen King is indeed a ‘bad writer’ if you consider his style, but a good writer if you consider his storytelling abilities.)
Question 1. The reading experience. The 19th century reading experience has been defined by Stéphane Mallarmé who is quoted as saying “Je ne sais pas d’autre bombe, qu’un livre.” Amos Vogel has successfully defined the film experience in the age of cinema (it has changed since the arrival of television and the VCR). But I have never found a satisfying definition of what the reading experience is in the 20th century since the advent of film and television, today’s main bearers of fiction/storytelling.
Now I don’t want to go as far as some poststructuralist theorists who claim to be able to read everything: from novels to films, from shopping behaviour to football games. To me the reading experience can be:
- travelling and having light to be able to read a story in a book in order to kill time.
- reading a book because it is so good that it provides a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in any other medium (moving images, video games, …)
The perfect example of the latter is Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow: Or the Nature of the Offense (1991). It provides you with an experience which I believe to be nearly unfilmable. See also my notes on filmability/unfilmability on the ‘adaptation’ page mentioned before.
Question 2: Film adaptations. Let’s extend the meaning of reading and connote it with the consumption of fiction and connote the term fiction with the art of storytelling.
Let’s also analyse the notion of ‘good writer’ and substitute ‘good’ with the notion of greatness. I’ve defined a work’s greatness by its ability to generate articulative responses.
Let’s now focus on the history of the consumption of fiction. Its history begins with telling tall stories around a campfire, which evolves into theater, and then — in the 19th century only — the consumption of fiction revolves around reading it (first serials, then in separate books called novels). But as soon as the medium film is invented, film takes over the consumption of storytelling/fiction. So the supreme popularity of reading fiction is about 100 years; from the 1830s (first romans feuilletons) to the 1930s (talking movies).
So I think that there is some truth in stating that the most successful novels are those which are most frequently adapted to film — in the sense that these novels — have continued to generate articulative responses, responses which did not have to be expressed in their own medium. (see also a novel’s success by the number of times it has been translated.)
To back this up, some authors and the number of film adaptations of their works:
Virginia Woolf: 5 film adaptations, Eugène Sue: 19 film adaptations, Marcel Proust: 7 film adaptations, Jack Kerouac: 10 film adaptations, Emile Zola: 75 film adaptations, Stephen King: 105 film adaptations, Victor Hugo: 124 film adaptations, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 132 film adaptations, Charles Dickens: 235 film adaptations and William Shakespeare: 663 adaptations. (source: IMDb)
Question 3. Is it style or content which makes some authors’ works more adaptable for film than others (and thus secure their longevity)?I can’t answer it easily. I have thought about this with regards to the notion of intertextuality here. But a remark supposedly by Eisenstein confuses me. He says that it is Dickens’s style that makes his work easily adaptable for film. Admittedly, I have this from an older version of Wikipedia on adaptation, so the source of Eisenstein’s comment is not confirmed:
Sergei Eisenstein noted that the novels of Charles Dickens were filmed more often than any material except the Bible, and he explained this by Dickens’s style. According to Eisenstein, a good source novel contains a great deal of action and extensive physical description. Novels that feature internal struggles and intellectual debate are difficult to film, but novels that offer descriptions of scenery and which posit their debates in plotting are easy to film. Since Eisenstein’s time, film theorists have pointed out that film’s tools and fiction’s tools are radically different. While film can achieve metaphor, it is difficult and time consuming to do so (with symbolism being more common). Additionally, stream of consciousness and internal monologues can only be filmed by means of intrusive and illusion-breaking techniques (such as voice overs). Therefore, novelists such as Stephen King and Michael Crichton, who concentrate on action and externals, are readier for film than Graham Swift or James Joyce would be. —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_adaptation [Sept 2005]